Convalescence, by Han Kang, is perhaps her most formulaic work in translation – it fits it well with late Pak Wansuh’s Identical Apartments: Jeon Seung-hee’s “Kong’s Garden, Bae Suah’s Green Apples; and a host of novellas that all essentially tell the same story, albeit in slightly different ways – the story of the alienation of the young woman whose life’s quotidian nature does not seem to match up to some unexpressed desires or fantasies in the hearts of the narrators. Each narrator has had some kind of trauma in their life and has more or less resigned themselves to half-thought-through philosophies about the meaninglessness or joylessness of life. And while Han often writes about those first issues, she is usually much better at portraying the philosophical questions that arise in her books and in her other two works (Vegetarian already in print, and Human Act about to come out) there are more interesting plots, better fleshed out. Not to mention the fact that the latter two works, no matter how much horror, helplessness, and harrowing content they contain, also feature narrators how are capable of a stance beyond mere semi-suicidal ennui.
In this case, beginning with an incident of an infected ankle, Han takes her reader back through the history of of a narrator with the infected ankle resulting from the death of a relative, which is the result of a disease, which may be the result of an earlier abortion, which may have caused a separation between the narrator and her sister which… well, you get it. it is a kind of effect then cause book, a reversal of times’ arrow, that tries to work its way backwards to explain why the narrator is incapable of joy, and why joy can only be a façade at the same time that pain is inexorable reality.
The narrator, of course, doesn’t even seem to want joy, at different times and times And in multiple contexts claiming that it is impossible, at least in the present, to know joy. As in Kong’s Garden and Green Apples, a alternative may exist, but the narrator is too, to use vernacular, burnt out to go for it. Life is merely pain, and pain is merely life. There is no advice, there are no prescriptions, and there is nothing that can be done. At the end of Convalescence when, to not give too much away, the narrator is feeling the cold ground steal her warmth, the narrator has rendered the questions of life so flat and meaningless that the answer to the narrator’s terminal question seems unimportant, just another banal, flat, and meaningless event, with an outcome that will be equally banal, flat, and meaningless. Whether this is intended to be a general philosophical stance (beyond that of the narrator), or a description of some evil functions of life as we currently live it, is left unanswered.
Han has dealt with this theme (and others) before. Her Vegetarian a must-read tour-de-force, is an example of this kind of fiction, but as it is written from the perspective of multiple narrators it achieves a kind of overall verisimilitude and three-dimensional character that Convalescence lacks. It also has a kind of depth of description and inner working of characters that leads a reader to understand the story, taking it from one to three dimensional. In The Vegetarian even conceivably over worn questions such as, “what is the value of the unexplored life”, are handled much more deftly; in fact the answers and even some remarkably bothersome solutions are shown – but the are not simply told, as they are in Convalescence. In fairness to Han, this difference may lay partly in the fact that Convalescence is a novella, while The Vegetarian is a novel, and the decompression of writing space may help Han project, rather than lecture her stance on pain and effort.
Han’s next work, Human Acts (early 2016), by adopting an even less didactic lecturing tone from the narrator(s) also discusses the meaning of life, and the loss of life, in a wonderful way (and one focused on the events of and aftermath of the Kwangju Massacre), and one that makes you sit up and think. What does this all mean – what is it to be a human. Convalescence, unfortunately, is more likely to make a reader wish the narrator would just fly to Bangkok, purchase a bottle of valium and at least try to get up.
While most of the Asia Publisher books are good (and as usual bilingual and with an authors note and critical acclaim that really help give Convalescence depth), this is the least (counting the book soon to be published) of Han’s translated works, and would be the last one I would recommend.
I would recommend, however, that more of her work be tranlalated!